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Reviewed, Not Necessarily Recommended: Brahms Piano Quartets

available at Amazon
Brahms, Piano Quartets 1 & 3, Amity Players, Xiayin Wang
Marquis 81377
available at Amazon
Brahms, Piano Quartets 1 & 3, Nash Ensemble
Onyx 4029

Two discs with Brahms’ First and Third Piano Quartets have come across my desk. The Nash Ensemble’s (on Onyx) and the Amity Players’ with pianist Xiayin Wang (on Marquis) are both capable performances. Discontented at first, my appreciation for the latter was much heightened by how well it stood up to the former.

The much better known and renown Nash Ensemble plays with more refinement and audibly indulging in the mastery of their instruments. The more homogenous result is not generally an advantage here, in the sense that, in most movements, it doesn’t make the performances stand out compared to the Amity Players. The few times it does draw our attention, however, it does to notable benefit. Take the opening of the fourth movement which is all elastic verve with the Nashs whereas the Amity Players (Béla Horvath, Tom Palny, Raphaël Dubé) get into eager but gawky gear which sounds less like a flexible stride than a wee hobble. On the upside, the Amity Players take to the music with greater—youthful?—tenacity in some movements and the more independent-sounding violin will please especially those who prefer more separation among their voices, with the strings more in the foreground.

Both groups take the Scherzo of op.60 at a fairly brisk pace. The Nash Ensemble is through it in 4:23, the Amity Players shave another ten seconds off that. That avoids ponderousness in music that’s on the hefty side to begin with and substitutes horizontal energy for gravitas. That might not be to everyone’s taste; to these ears it’s a fair trade-off. The delicately reluctant touch of first violinist Horvath in the opening Andante of op.60 is, with his tidy and resilient tone, is an absolute treat. Ian Brown’s comparatively straight-laced entry melds in with his Nash brethren Marianne Thorsen, Lawrence Power, and Paul Watkins and isn’t half as exciting in this (brief) moment. The veteran ensemble makes up for it with more steady ensemble work later in the resolutely performed movement, though.

The Amity Players’ recording is one the artists can be proud of and one that attendees of their concerts can take home as a memento knowing they have gotten perfectly fine Brahms Piano Quartets. But competition in the crowded market is tough and won’t allow it to stand out. Complete sets with Domus (Virgin, still my favorite), the Beaux Arts Trio/Trampler (Philips, Pentatone), and the Leopold String Trio/Hamelin (Hyperion) are preferable, as are, in this exact coupling, the Fauré Quartet (DG, available in Europe) and Lars Vogt at the Heimbach Festival with players like Julia Fischer, Kim Kashkashian, and Boris Pergamenschikow (EMI, available as an ArkivCD). The Nash Ensemble gets an ever so slightly stronger recommendation on account of superb ensemble work, but a rave this doesn’t elicit, either.